A Skeptic’s Case for Positivity
It’s far better than the alternative
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon can be a magical place: you stand with a 180-degree view of a thing so big and complicated, you can’t understand it if you only look for a few seconds. You see millions of years of erosion, dozens of layers of geology, dozens of side canyons with their own side canyons. You could sit there for hours or days, taking it in, watching the light change, illuminating things you didn’t see the minute before and won’t see a minute after. It’s a huge, complex artwork in an open-air museum that never closes, and you can stay as long as it takes you to figure out what it means to you and your existence, or decide it’s impossible to figure out and walk away satisfied with whatever you got from it. That’s one way to look at it.
Alternately, you could describe it as crowded with tour-bus passengers and selfie sticks, packing the restaurants a few steps away from the rim, accidentally dropping water bottles and food wrappers into the canyon, ignoring the signs that say please don’t feed the squirrels, talking loudly on cell phones, and making the whole thing feel like a bit of a tourist trap, more like Times Square than one of America’s most famous national parks.
You have a choice when you’re there: you can focus on the canyon in front of you and have your mind blown by nature, or you can focus on the people behind you and have your spirits dampened by the negative aspects of making one viewpoint accessible to millions of people.
You can choose wonder—or you can choose the opposite of wonder, something that seems to be plentiful in our current day, available via the tap of a finger and a second or two of scrolling: a million hot takes, snarky comments, and contrarian reactions on anything and everything. One of the heartening things about the internet nowadays is that you can find, in seconds, other people who love some obscure thing just as much as you do (like the Subreddit for grilled cheese), and you can connect with them. One of the less heartening things is that, with the same amount of ease (or completely by accident), you can find someone who hates the thing you love, whether it’s a musician, a restaurant, or a national park. If you spend enough time paying attention to all the opinions on the internet, they can gradually become a sort of blanket of despair, snuffing out your joy, or infecting your perspective. If you concentrate on how all the other tourists at the South Rim are interfering with your Grand Canyon experience, you’re choosing to ruin your own experience. Instead: grab an ice cream cone (there might be a line) and enjoy the view.
I’m not advocating for 24/7 blind optimism. The world is not a perfect place. It’s never great for everyone at the same time, and many things about it should change so it can become a better place for more people. But you can fight for change and still experience joy, as smarter people than me have pointed out.
I’m not naturally an optimistic or positive person, but I often find myself stopping in awe to watch a truck driver back a tractor-trailer into a tight alley. I still get a little kick—even 35 years after my first rides without training wheels—out of how my bicycle just keeps rolling after a few hard pedal strokes. I can’t believe how tasty even below-average pizza is, and that some form of pizza is in almost every populated place I’ve ever traveled in the world. I never get tired of Kind of Blue, even well after the thousandth time I’ve listened to it.
I think that snarky voice, the negative remark, the ability to have a slight dissatisfaction with everything, is inside all of us. We are blessed and cursed with seemingly infinite choice, the possibility that there might be something a little bit better, or even “perfect,” around the corner, in the next swipe left, or after a few more seconds of scrolling.
You can decide every day, multiple times every day, if you want to have a sense of joy, slight awe, and/or amazement in your life. You can do the opposite and spend your time figuring out how to creatively take a shit on everything, building a shield out of snark to hide behind, lest you get too excited about something. I have both these voices in my head at all times, just like you. But I recommend you choose wonder. It won’t solve all the world’s problems, but it certainly must do more to make the world a better place than being perpetually unimpressed does, don’t you think?
A friend once told me he thought someone should make a film capturing people’s reactions at the moment they see the Grand Canyon for the first time, from the viewpoint on the South Rim. I think it’s a fascinating idea, turning the camera away from one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and showing not the scenery, but its effect on the humans who experience it.
The world is changing faster than ever before, and it gets easier every year you’re alive to be just a bit more of a pessimist, turning the brightness dial of your perspective down another notch. It takes effort, but I believe it’s worth it, when we can, to squint into a visual field of rain clouds loaded with infinite ways we could be disappointed, unimpressed, and dissatisfied with every little thing in our lives, and instead focus on a sense of awe and amazement.
Brendan Leonard’s new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems: More Funny Shit in the Woods from Semi-Rad.com, is out now.